Saturday, October 30, 2021

Stay in a true Western hotel

Sunset transformed the tan adobe walls of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas into a glowing orange, an earthy hue reminiscent of the desert just a stretch down the road.  As we stepped up to the porch and through the front door, we entered the Old West. 

 After spending five days rafting, horseback riding, and touring Big Bend National Park, about 70 miles away via US 385, we were pleasantly surprised by the beauty and serenity of the Gage.

Rafting in Big Bend National Park

Restored to its original glory in stages during the past 30 years, the Gage is a Texas Historic Landmark.  Built in 1927 for Alfred Gage, a prosperous businessman and rancher living in San Antonio who needed accommodations in West Texas, the original hotel welcomed travelers in this widespread, sparsely populated ranching and mining community.  The building fell into disrepair after Gage died until J. P. and Mary Jon Bryan of Houston purchased it in 1978.  Using authentic antiques and regional craftsmen, the Bryans transformed it into an example of early 20th century Wild West days.

After checking in, we left the main hotel and walked through the courtyard, lavishly landscaped with purple, pink, and white flowers, to our room in Los Portales, “The Porches.” This Spanish-inspired addition was built adjacent to the original property in 1992.  As for all 20 rooms in Los Portales, ours featured an antique entry door constructed of aged mesquite wood salvaged from abandoned buildings in Mexico.  The doors are all different, most over 100 years old and handmade of dozens of pieces of wood fitted together in complex designs.

No modern plaster ceilings here, either: constructed of beams made from ponderosa pine found in the nearby Davis Mountains, the ceilings resembled thatched roofs from a century ago. Sticks between the logs, made from the flower stalk of a local plant named sotol, added authenticity to the architecture.

Right outside the door of our room we stepped into a traditional adobe courtyard or “placita,” which historically provided protection from the hot desert sun and housed the community well—now interpreted as a lovely fountain made of Mexican volcanic stone. 

Following pioneer construction techniques, bricks for Los Portales were made on premises—80,000 made from a sun-dried mixture of caliche soil, straw, and water--and walls were later finished with a coat of gypsum plaster.  Brick on porches, clay floor tiles, and brightly hand painted bathroom tiles are all from Mexico, manufactured by original techniques.    

Room furnishings—blankets, tables, chairs, headboards, lamps, and artwork—reflected the combination of Western, Native American, and Mexican cultures. And, just so you wouldn’t forget that this was the Old West, Big Horn sheep skulls decorated outside walls.

Dinner on premises at Café Cenizo featured entrée selections ranging from smoked cabrito (young goat) for the adventurous to grilled lamb chops and bacon-wrapped quail for traditionalists and several varieties of local cuisine: enchiladas (a regional favorite), catfish, and chicken fried steak (my husband’s choice). 

If the weather had been warmer, we might have taken a dip in the pool or people-watched from wooden rocking chairs on the porch.  Instead, we lit a fire in our room’s fireplace—logs provided—to chase away the November chill.  Watching flames flicker from the comfort of our queen-sized bed was the epitome of relaxation. 

In addition to Big Bend National Park, Marathon is convenient for day trips to McDonald Observatory, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Sul Ross University in Alpine. The Gage Hotel is located at the intersection of highways 90 and 385.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Friday, October 22, 2021

Places to see before they're gone

As the earth evolves and changes (we no longer have the Ice Age!), certain natural features may face effects that result in greatly reduced size or disappearance altogether. As travelers, we are curious about how warmer temperatures and naturally occurring cycles of weather might affect notable sights. Here are few places you might consider visiting sooner rather than later.

The Dead Sea has been a place of healing and relaxation since biblical times. People still come to float in buoyant waters--claimed to be therapeutic--that are more than eight times saltier than the ocean.

But some experts believe this natural wonder that lies between Israel and Jordan will be gone by 2050. Water levels are dropping by more than three feet a year, creating dangerous sinkholes. The level has fallen more than 82 feet since the 1970s, according to World Wildlife Fund.

Other experts say it will never fully disappear but survive at a fraction of its current size. There is a glimmer of hope as discussions proceed on a $1.5-billion project to restore the Dead Sea.

For those who feel drawn to the saltiest place on earth, now would be a good time to plan a trip. It’s still possible to see and wade into this murky body of water. Grab a handful of “healing” mud from the bottom (or purchase mud already packaged) to smear on your body. Tradition says it will revitalize your skin and make you feel smooth all over.

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia, is the only living thing visible from space. It is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, stretching 1240 miles along Australia’s northeast coast. Home to more than 400 types of coral and 1500 species of fish, this World Heritage site could be gone by the end of the century.

Warmer temperatures, combined with increasing sediment, nutrients and contaminants, and gradual ocean acidification have all contributed to the impact on coral reefs. Increasing development along the coast and adjacent islands is another factor, as are a series of severe weather events of the last decade.  More than half of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals have been lost since 1995. The steepest falls came after mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

The Great Barrier Reef is currently in a recovery window with coral cover rising in all regions. Experts say coral reefs can recover from disturbances if given enough time.

If you go, take a snorkeling tour. You’ll see some of the most magnificent and colorful coral in the world and maybe even a turtle or humpback whale in the distance. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Glacier National Park--Only 26 of the 100 plus glaciers that existed in the park in the 1850s are still there today. Between 1966 and 2015, all of the 26 named glaciers got smaller, with the average loss at 40%, according to the Glacier National Park service.

When the park, located in the northwest corner of Montana along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, was founded in 1910, the mammoth masses of ice covered about 25 acres. Today, for most of those glaciers, visitors just see remnants of ice high in the mountains. Scientists have estimated that there won’t be any more of the active glaciers in the park by 2030, although indications are that you’ll probably be able to see them for a bit longer.

Even without glaciers, abundant mountains and lakes in this northern national park provide some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States, not to mention a variety of wildlife. Roads in the park take you near many of the 131 named lakes (more than 630 lakes are unnamed). The park also contains 175 mountains and more than 740 miles of trails for even better views.

Mountains, lakes, wildlife, and shrinking glaciers make an unforgettable visit—if you go soon.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Fascinating manmade marvels you can visit

The itinerary for many of
 our trips has taken Larry and me to see, explore, and marvel at the wonders of nature—steep walls of the Grand Canyon, glistening glaciers of Antarctica and Alaska, rugged mountains of Italy and Switzerland, massive water pouring over Victoria Falls, the amazing migration of wildebeests in Africa, the Great Barrier Reef, and so much more. Our world is a treasure trove of  incredible beauty and inspiration created by forces beyond human control.

But man has an incredible ability to think big, to design and engineer sites that are marvelous in their own right. Here are a few that we have enjoyed on our travels and that you might want to visit, too.

Taj Mahal—This imposing marble structure is actually much more beautiful than any picture can convey. Precious stones delicately inlaid in carvings throughout the stately edifice create possibly the world’s most outstanding tomb. Constructed by a 17th century emperor of India in memory of his beloved wife, it took 20,000 craftsmen almost 20 years to complete. Go early in the morning before crowds arrive, and you might see its reflection in the water feature in front—an absolutely stunning sight.

An enduring symbol of Rome and the imperial era, this structure was built almost 2,000 years ago to host different types of entertainment. It’s an enormous structure built to hold 73,000 spectators. Famously missing a small section of its façade, the imposing venue has survived earthquakes and fire. Allow plenty of time to explore the many entrances, rooms, and seating spaces. A smaller, but still impressive, version is the Colosseum in Verona, Italy.

Pyramids of Giza—How exactly these pyramids near Cairo, Egypt were constructed is still a mystery. Consider that the building blocks are heavy granite and limestone boulders weighing up to 60 tons each, and the Great Pyramid stands 454 feet high. Constructed 3800 years ago, it is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Additional pyramids and a bust of the Phoenix are nearby attractions when you visit.

Stonehenge—This is another mysterious structure since historians aren’t really sure what the purpose was for this enigmatic circle of stones. Erected in southern England around 2500 B.C., the prehistoric formation has been thought to be a religious feature, burial ground, astronomical monitoring device, and place for celebrations. Whatever the reason for its construction, the precise layout of these formidable bluestones still attracts visitors who just want to admire the skill of people who carried out this formidable task without modern tools.

Mount Rushmore—Visitors from all over the world flock to see the sculptured faces of four famous American presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. More than 400 workers helped carve the creation of sculptor Gutzon Borglum during a 14 year span, often using dynamite to blast through the mountain. It’s a spectacular sight that stands as a tribute to these outstanding leaders of our country—and a welcome testament to patriotism.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Thinking about travel? Now may be a good time to go.

Travel is ramping up. And I’m certainly all for that.  Coronavirus cases, at least in my part of the country, are going down and vaccinations are going up. That’s a good combination, for sure.

Everyone has their own comfort level regarding straying away from home, so do what feels right for you.  But if you’re anxious to pack your bags and get away, don’t worry unnecessarily. Travel can be uplifting, refreshing, and safe.

To that end, I’d like to share some of our recent travel experiences in the hopes that it will help alleviate any lingering fears.

Sunset on beach at Holbox Island, a tiny fishing
village north of the Yucatan Peninsula

We made three significant trips during August and September—with no problems. First, we flew to Mexico for an adventure swimming with whale sharks. Granted, wearing masks in airports and on planes is not exactly pleasant, but we view that as a necessary layer of protection for ourselves and others.

Whale sharks can be 40 feet long. 

After our adventure on a remote island off the Yucatan peninsula, we spent several additional days at an adults-only all-inclusive resort. Larry and I decided to make that a restful part of the journey, so we spent much of the time in our private cabana by the pool (included). The point is that we were away from cities and crowds of people. We wore masks as required when indoors.

Our cabana at the Hyattl Zilara in Cancun.

One of the perks of the hotel where we stayed was providing COVID tests for guests from the U.S. (required for us to re-enter the country). The hotel also offered an insurance policy that would cover accommodations and meals if we should test positive and have to quarantine for 10 days. Since we had already been in Mexico for a week prior to checking in at the resort, we decided to purchase the $29 policy.

Hiking in the Dolomites, mountains in northern Italy

Our trip to Italy had been cancelled and scheduled three times, so when it looked okay to go late August, we said yes. Coronavirus levels have been lower in northern Italy where we were going, and our activities were mostly outdoors, which seems to be the key to traveling both internationally and domestically. Airport and airline mask mandates were a little more challenging because of the time factor, but we survived.
The dog is trained to find truffles and
bring them back to its owner.

We hiked in the Dolomites and took walking tours, as well as hunting for truffles, visiting a hazelnut farm and wineries—all outdoors. Most meals were consumed al fresco in pleasant weather and lovely surroundings. Again, we avoided crowds. Even the two train rides on our itinerary were not really crowded. At a few places we were asked to show our vaccination cards, and masks were required indoors. Complying was only a minor inconvenience for the privilege of visiting this beautiful country.

Hot springs at Lake Garda near Verona, Italy 

At the end of September, we flew (masks required again!) to Colorado to see fall colors and visit with friends. Once we got our sanitized rental car, we were felt free to come and go as we pleased. We stayed in a hotel with full kitchen and prepared many meals there. A VRBO or Airbnb would provide similar accommodations. With pleasantly cool weather we were happy to hike, take walks and drives, and enjoy colors of the season.
Golden aspens in Colorado

You get the idea: Avoid crowds, do outdoor activities, and comply with any mask rules at your destination. Plan carefully, and your trip can be just as safe as it would have been two years ago.

With the holiday season approaching quickly, consider traveling by mid-November--or wait until January. Not only will you have more options, but prices will be lower and availability better. Then start perusing catalogues and online travel sites to plan an amazing vacation in 2022!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier